An interview with Joe Hottinger from Halestorm: “no matter how long you spend on something, you have just got to be willing to throw it all away”

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Halestorm are one of the premier rock bands in America right now.  With their current lineup, they have been putting out albums of increasing quality and leading tours up and down the country. They have been steadily amassing a worldwide following and are always looking to up the ante. With the release of their brand new album ‘Vicious’ right around the corner, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Guitarist Joe Hottinger in the Gibson Offices on the bands most recent press tour to discuss the writing and recording of the new album including the surprising influence Code Orange had on it, the current feeling within the Halestorm camp as well as working with WWE and HHH, the one riff he wished he had written and lots more.

Firstly I want to say the new album ‘Vicious’ is great. I’ve been listening to it nonstop and I think if it wasn’t for ‘The Strange Case Of…’ being so good it would already be top of my list.

Joe: I appreciate that. It’s awesome to hear because you guys are the first people to hear it outside of our circle and we didn’t really know, I mean we’re happy with it and we’re proud of it, but you never know what people are going to think, but that’s good to hear.

Let’s start at the beginning with the album title Vicious. I think every album you have put out has a title that is reflective of the album itself. The self-titled one being your introduction to the audience, The Strange Case Of… is about exploring the multiple sides of the band, then Into the Wild Life showcases the more experimental side of the band. Would you say that Vicious as a title is an accurate indication of the album.

Joe: Vicious was the last song we wrote for the record, Lzzy and I were talking one night and it was right near the end, a lot of time when we’re writing we follow whatever gets us excited, there’s a spark there whether it’s a riff or a song title, a line or a melody, sometimes she’ll just sit there and write at a piano and then we have to figure out how to make it rock, whatever that spark is you just have to chase it down and make it work. We had the song title Vicious, and we wondered to ourselves what that would be about, so we wrote the line ‘What doesn’t kill me, makes me Vicious’ taking that Nietzsche quote and we fucking with that a little bit, and Lzzy is so amazing lyrically and she liked it, and she started going on it, I had a bunch of riffs, and we wrote the song, but even before we wrote that song we had a different title in mind, there wasn’t a reason for the title it was ok, and it was there if we couldn’t think of anything else, but then when that song title came about we decided it would be a fucking cool title for the album. We had already brained about the concept for the album cover, it was like a napkin drawing of a chick with hands all over her, and it was designed to raise more questions, but then with that title, it made so much more sense, it became about the mouth, and what is Lzzy’s mouth doing in the picture, it makes a lot more sense, because this album is the first time that the four of us have been properly represented on a recording, if that makes sense? There have been times over the years where people say to us ‘I keep telling my friends to see you live, because it’s not the same as the record’ and we totally agree, we spent the last 3 years trying to figure out to bridge that came, we went so far with Into the Wild Life as to playing it live in the studio, and then overdubbing it to make it a studio recording, but that was us trying to play live and get that energy, it wasn’t quite right, but it was getting closer, but we’ve been thinking that forever and when we met Nick Raskulinecz our producer, and he said he was a big fan and that he had seen us live, but he hadn’t heard the record that he wanted to hear from us yet, and he said that was the record he wanted to make with us.

That must have been a huge weight off your shoulders having a producer who is on the same page as you guys.

Joe:  Yeah, we went in there, and before we even had that conversation we had written 12-15 songs, while we were finishing out that last album cycle. They were good and some of them would have done well for us, but Lzzy was talking about some of the same shit and it seemed like a side step for the band, we just threw them all out, we wanted to push ourselves, and if we’re lucky then we can push the genre into something interesting, not that there isn’t anything interesting going on in the genre but we’re talking more of that active rock radio out here, sometimes it’s hard to listen to because you don’t know who the band is because they are all faceless and they all sound the sound the same, everything is chasing this radio thing and it’s been good to us, but we wanted to do something that works there but is also a little challenging as well.

You talk about scrapping those songs. How does something like that affect you as an artist? I would imagine there is an attachment there when you write, for it to then just end up on the cutting room floor must suck.

Joe: That was the thing we learnt in this process, no matter how long you spend on something, you have just got to be willing to throw it all away. To me it was a relief that we got rid of those and we were all on the same page, because I was horrified that somebody in our team would like them, and I was really impressed with our team, our a&r guy and management that they heard those and agreed that it wasn’t what they wanted to hear from us, because I don’t really know where we were at, and it kind of sounded like we were writing for something that wasn’t us, and it sounded forced, but at the same time they were good songs, and they were catchy and Lzzy sounded good on them, but to their credit they didn’t want to hear them and it was a relief, and even throughout the process we wrote a ton of songs, and we were like ‘Fuck it, if we’re not excited by it then our fans won’t be’ and it’s not worth it when it gets to that.

Are you one of those people who goes back and listens to the previous album when you start writing a new one to see what you did on that, and to look at the things you liked and perhaps the things you didn’t. Do those things influence you at all.

Joe: No, it’s just all about chasing what excites us. I haven’t listened to our old recordings in a while, but we were somewhere recently and one of our songs came on, and the people who had it on were nice and we left it on, and I was sitting there thinking ‘This actually sounds pretty good’ (Laughs) and then you start thinking about how you don’t even play that the same way anymore and  how it’s evolved, but shit still sounds good (laughs).

The new album Vicious has a much harder edge to it. There are moments on it that are heavy like Black Vultures, the title track and Uncomfortable, but then you have the softer songs like Heart of Novocaine and The Silence. Did you set out to make a heavier record this time around.

Joe:  We just wrote what got us excited and I guess that is what we were into at the time. We really like metal and hard rock, we;re not a metal band by any stretch, but fucking Code Orange man, I fucking love that band, and Gojira, they are making exciting music that is refreshing to me, I love Code Orange, because everything you’re not supposed to do they go and do it, and it’s awesome, and not like we could ever pull off anything like that, but I was listening to that record when we were recording and it just got me into the rudest sounds, it’s just the most offensive noise that they manage to make musical, and that sort of just seeped it’s way in and the feeling I get when I hear that it is the feeling I want when we’re writing, and it’s a totally different genre, but we get off on heavy music.

I have spoken to Lzzy about this previously, but I want to get your take on this. When Lzzy writes her lyrics, they are her thoughts and feelings, her emotions she is putting out there. But Halestorm is a band and it represents all of you, so as members of the band do you guys form any sort of personal attachment to her lyrics, do you have to find something in them to be able to feel the songs when it comes to playing them.

Joe: No, but that’s just me personally and that’s the way I listen to music, I listen to lyrics last. I know some people who hear it all or some that just listen to the words and that is their representation of the song, but ever since I was little it was the groove and the melody, and the instrumentation of it is how I hear a song first. I remember the first time I got my mind blown with lyrics was My Wave by Soundgarden, I’d sing along, but I wasn’t focused on any lyrics, but I remember being blown away that the song had a beachy feel to it, and I put it together that he is saying keep it off my wave and then it hit me, and to me that is the icing on the cake when the music and the lyrics form a cohesive thing, to me that’s the good shit. I talk about concept’s with Lzzy, and we do song titles. Skulls was the name of the riff I had on there because when I write and record music I write down the first thing I see and name the riff that, for no other reason than to name it something other than riff 2 and she said to me ‘That’s interesting, what if we had a song called Skulls, what would it sound like?’ and then we just go into those conversations and the role of her as a woman and the character of Lzzy Hale in Halestorm what would she be saying, but it’s more about the music for me.

I remember the first time I put the new album on and listened to it all the way through I got really excited and kept thinking about how other people were going to react to the songs and how I couldn’t wait for other people to hear it, So for you what is the better feeling, when you all hear it together for the first time or when the fans hear it and you start seeing them react to it.

Joe: The biggest buzz is putting that puzzle together, it’s creating something that wasn’t there. That’s my favourite thing, then once it’s done, it’s hearing back, it;s been really cool doing some of the interviews, talking with you and some of the other people who have been zeroing and really listening, there have been some surprises, over in Sweden, the guy from the biggest magazine over there was like ‘I’m going to start at the end, The Silence is the best song I’ve ever heard from you guys’  that song wasn’t even going to be on the record, but it really affected him, but as I say that wasn’t meant to be on the record, originally it was an 11 track record and it ended with Vicious, but we thought it didn’t end right as a collection, we recorded 21 songs and some of the b-sides are really fucking cool, and we could put them all out and it would be the whole collection of where we were over the last year and a half. The silence happened to be the one that fit the slot, and there were probably better songs in the collection, but that was the one that went in there and some people are really digging it, so it’s been cool seeing people digging into specific songs, specific lyric and moments and what is really cool is that people are totally getting it, at least on the journalist side, they are really understanding it, they mentioned that there’s songs about survival and this and that, it’s been cool.

The Silence is my favourite record on the album. You mentioned songs about survival, and it’s interesting that the album seems to be bookended by songs about Survival in Black Vultures which is more defiant and about surviving in spite of something and then you have The Silence which is more about having survived something and being ok despite it happening.

Joe: I appreciate that. That was a long process of about 4 or 5 years, that song. I had the guitars and melody for the parts forever and we just never knew what to do with them, we always really liked it,  but it just needed the right words and we would both write things, but it was never right so we’d just throw it away. But then you don’t play it for a year, then go back it and look at it with a fresh brain and start over with it, and one night we got it.

There always seems to be one song on every Halestorm album that manages to make me cry and that is the song on this album that made me cry.

Joe: She got me on that one too, when she put the lyrics down and performed it, those are the demo lyrics and we did it at the house with our little demo rig and the producer thought it was fucking great and I re-recorded the guitars, otherwise we just left it, she sang it and recorded it in the moment and I think that is the most important thing hearing her emote at that moment, but yeah she got me the first time too.

Uncomfortable the first single from the album was used by WWE to promote their NXT Takeover event. How was that for you seeing the song used that way.

Joe: It was awesome man, we saw videos going up about it from WWE. I went with Lzzy down to Wrestlemania in New Orleans because she sang at the NXT thing there for Ember Moon and I just went down with her to hang out and take it all in because I’ve never been a huge wrestling fan honestly, but it’s fucking badass and it’s so much fun. We ended up having a wrestling week, our buddy Baron Corbin who we have known for over a decade is now coming up in that and he’s on Raw now and they came through Nashville, so he put us ringside, it was fucking awesome it’s like extreme athletic soap operas and it was fucking badass, we didn’t know the storylines and there are just dudes yelling at each other, just the athleticism alone when you’re in person is like going to the X- Games, seeing it on tv has nothing on seeing it in person. Triple H runs NXT, that’s his thing and I was just so blown away by that dude, he came to the rehearsal with Lzzy and Cane Hill the night before and listened and threw suggestions out there, the next day he had his headset on all day going through the aspects for the show and you can tell that is his show down to every detail, he is just on it and you have to respect that, and the way they run their social media and create more questions than answers and they are creating discussions, they are brilliant.

There is something I would like to get your opinion on and it’s a topic that came up at Download. We were discussing the fact that Download has never been headlined by a band with a female singer or a band with a full time permanent female member. Do you think Halestorm could be the first band to do it?

Joe: I don’t know man, there are way too many things that would have to happen before we get to that point. We are seeing how far we can take it, I guess it depends on the music we write and how we choose to perform. I hope so, how cool would that be? if people start coming out to see us in droves then maybe there is a spot for us there, you can’t just throw any old random band on there as a Download headliner, you’ve got to earn that spot.

What is the one guitar riff in history that you wish you had written.

Joe: Enter Sandman. It’s massive and it’s one of the biggest songs ever when you write that music that changes the world, it’s one of those.

What is the one Halestorm song you are the most proud of.

Joe: Let’s go with The Silence, that one was a fighter, we had to fight for that one.  It’s the first song I ever wrote in open G, I really like that song and I’m glad that we got that song on the record.

Somebody comes along and has never heard of Halestorm what 3 songs do you give them to best sum up the band.

Joe: I Miss the Misery because that was our biggest song, Skulls and either Dear Daughter or The Silence.

This lineup of Halestorm has been together for 15 years, What would you say is the most important thing you have learnt in 15 years of being in this band.

Joe: Literally the most valuable, and if I could go back in time and tell myself this about guitar playing it would be write with your brain and not your fingers, I did that for so long and I’d get stuck in these boxes of writing and somewhere over the last year or two I’ve learnt thatI’ve got to start the songs in my head and write the riffs that need to be in spot and what makes the most sense, I need to think with my brain and not my fingers because my fingers don’t have brains. I can write daily now and it’s usually decent enough to explore further so that would be it.

How do you want Halestorm to be remembered as a band.

Joe: I hope people remember us a good live band, that’s where it matters, and we’ve always been a live band and where it always mattered for us is being in front of people and creating moments, I hope that we would be remembered as good musical moment makers.

Do you have any closing comments.

Joe: Thanks to everyone who is reading this and who supports the rock and roll community, especially here in England it;s one of the best in the world without a doubt, we’re all the same here in this underground world hanging out and it’s much better than the mainstream and I;m glad there’s people paying attention to the rock press and that we have a rock press that’s paying attention to the bands, because it gives us something to read as well when we’re finding new music and it’s awesome and it feels liek we’ve been embraced a lot by you guys over here, and we’re happy to be here and be a part of it.

Halestorm’s new album Vicious is released today (July 27th) on Atlantic Records.

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